Live sheep exports - not worth the moral cost

9th May 2018

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Dr Smith is an ARC Future Fellow, and Professor (Associate) at the ANU. She was an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow then Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health (ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment) from 2004.

Dr Smith was awarded ARC ‘Discovery’ and ‘Linkage’ funding for projects on the economics of breastfeeding and markets in mothers milk, surveying maternal time use and breastfeeding support in workplaces and childcare. She has been a chief investigator on an NHMRC quit smoking randomised controlled trial. She has published over thirty articles in health, nutrition and economics journals, as well as two books (Taxing Popularity and Gambling Taxation in Australia) and several book chapters. Her current research focusses on the economics of breastfeeding and regulation of markets in mothers’ milk.

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Growing up near Midland on the outskirts of Perth during the 1960s and 1970s, I endured the weekly stench from the local abattoir. It was the price we paid to get meat to population centres. My first job was in the local meat processing plant, working with people described as “salt of the earth, working class”, who had historically toiled in appalling conditions because they had no choice. Pressured by unions over postwar decades, Australian governments eventually stepped in to enforce decent standards for work and wages. Compelled by those who saw the immense cruelty involved, animal welfare laws were also imposed. Meat industry employers objected to red tape and higher labour costs, but community standards were enforced, most operators complied, and the worst operators eventually left the business.

Meat became more expensive, but it was a price worth paying. Not every cost and benefit is financial.

That’s how it is now with the live sheep export industry. Until recently, only those working on the ships knew how bad its conditions were, and those who spoke up lost their jobs. With the terrible non-financial costs and risks now visible, are we willing to pay the financial cost of banning live sheep exports? It is, however, a small and shrinking part of the Australian meat and livestock industry accounting for just $250 million of the $5 billion sheep-meat industry.

The main industry player is one shipping company, Emanuel, which dispatches 1.7 million of around 1.9 million Australian animals transported each year. It pays around $8 a head more in the sale yards for lighter or worse-condition wethers. For some, it is a commercially attractive premium. Poor-condition sheep are less valued for local processing as farmers naively expect their sheep to be well cared for.

It ought to be unnecessary to repeat the long history of concern about the cruelty of the live sheep export trade to the Middle East. The multiple, horrific examples are well documented. Vets say the trade is “not commercially viable” without animals suffering. A 1985 parliamentary inquiry concluded that live exports were inimical to good animal welfare. A 2003 review said all “higher risk voyages” – like this winter trade from Western ports – should be eliminated. The industry couldn’t afford more scandals.

If animals were forced to experience such cruelty onshore, those responsible would be subject to prosecution under Western Australian animal welfare laws. Ownership and legal accountability should not shift offshore as soon as stock are on board.

Until recently it’s been hard to count the costs of the “ships of shame”. The conditions on board were hidden from public view. Farmers have taken comfort from industry rhetoric about high standards of care. Now, assisted by modern technology, the truth is visible. We can all see what happens to the millions of Australian sheep dispatched from Fremantle every year.

The light at the end of the tunnel for sheep producers is a growing export demand for Australian sheep meat. The export abattoirs are certified halal, although Gulf officials with business interests in subsidised local industries can create difficulties about credentials.

Australian meat producers have worked hard to develop a “clean”, “green” and “cuddly” reputation for Australian lamb. Live sheep exports are putting it at risk. Consumer boycotts are a real threat, in overseas as well as Australian markets.

Will there be anything left for Australian producers to be proud of by the time this business model dies? A recent study by Pegasus Economics estimates only around $9 million a year in price premiums (averaging $2000 per sheep farmer) would be lost to producers if the Fremantle sheep exports were banned. Twice as much could be gained by the boost to Australian meat sales.

Is it a price we are willing to pay, to end the horror? From the ongoing public furore, and the evidence before our eyes, the answer appears to be yes. The costs are small, and the benefits for our own industry future are considerable.

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Dr Julie P. Smith is an associate professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Australian National University School of Global Governance and Regulation. Her research focuses on the economic valuation of breastfeeding and regulation of markets in mothers’ milk. After seeing a Four Corners documentary on the live export trade in 2011, she became a vegetarian.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet